By Ori Lewis
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel opened a high-speed rail link between Tel Aviv's international airport and Jerusalem on Tuesday, part of a $2 billion project that has drawn Palestinian complaints over its route through small parts of the occupied West Bank.
The train will cut travel time between Ben-Gurion Airport and a new, 80-metre-(260-foot)-deep underground terminal at the entrance to Jerusalem to around 20 minutes. By road, the trip takes at least 40 minutes.
At the airport, the bright red train drew smiles from eager passengers.
"It was like a dream come true ... It's really quite amazing
and will be a valuable asset to people wanting to get to and from the airport," said Manchester-born Eli Rothbard, 45, a ground services employee at Ben Gurion.
The train, travelling at speeds of up to 160 kilometres per hour (100 mph), traverses a series of new tunnels and bridges, passing through hills between Jerusalem and the airport, about 40 km (25 miles) away.
The line runs through sections of land Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war near the Palestinian village of Beit Surik, on the outskirts of Jerusalem, and in the Latrun Valley, about midway between the holy city and Ben-Gurion airport.
Palestinians who live in the West Bank are largely barred by Israel from travelling abroad via Ben-Gurion, and cross overland to Jordan instead to fly out of the airport in Amman. Israel cites security concerns for the ban.
"It is very sad that you see a railway and see modern technology on your land and inside your land and you cannot use it or exploit it because of the element of power of the occupation," said Mohammed al-Tari, 55, from Beit Surik.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat accused Israel of "illegally making use of occupied Palestinian land" in setting the train's route, which will eventually include a direct high-speed link between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv city itself.
Erekat said the train was part of Israel's "agenda of turning its occupation into annexation".
On a test run last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the opening of the line was "an historic moment" heralding a "new era for Jerusalem and the state of Israel."
There have been plans for a fast train between Jerusalem and the city of Tel Aviv, Israel's commercial hub on the Mediterranean coast, since 1995. But the project - infrastructure work began in 2005 - has been slow-moving, plagued by a lack of funding and environmental concerns.
Completion of electrification work and the opening of the 60-km (37-mile)-long route between the two cities has been frequently postponed. No firm inaugural date has been announced.
When completed, the train journey time between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem will take under half an hour. The drive takes at least an hour. An existing rail line built by the Ottoman Turks more than 100 years ago meanders around picturesque hills and the journey takes more than 90 minutes.
At Ben-Gurion, Yogev Yair, a 41-year-old high-tech employee travelling with his toddler son to Jerusalem, hailed the opening of the high-speed link. "I personally have no problem with the line traversing the 'Green Line' (into the West Bank)," he said.
(Additional reporting by Stephen Farrell, Ari Rabinovitch, Steven Scheer and Ali Sawafta, writing by Ori Lewis; Editing by Jeffrey Heller/Mark Heinrich)